Hurricanes have a great impact on the livelihoods of millions of people. This is an obvious statement given the sheer size and magnitude of the forces unleashed by them. What is less obvious, however, is all the different ways in which hurricanes impact the health of people, the environment, and animals.
Direct impacts of hurricanes on health are driven by two main (and very powerful) factors: wind and rain. Together, they can directly harm human life (i.e., falling branches, storm surges, floods, collapsing roofs) and the environment (i.e., overflowing sewage systems, dispersal of toxic waste from flooded plants, damage to trees and vegetation, erosion of beaches and riverbanks).
At the same time, wind and water can damage infrastructures as well, indirectly affecting people’s health, the most obvious example being power outages when transmission lines are compromised. Live wires in flooded areas can electrocute people and animals in contact with water, while blackouts can result in spoiled food and water that could lead to poisoning. At the same time, hurricanes can disrupt the habitat of both wild and domesticated animals, thus increasing the chance of clashes between humans and animals. During Hurricanes, the number of people stung or bitten by insects and animals increases, and many first responders are bitten or attacked by scared pets and other domestic animals.
Interestingly, most studies agree that the majority of injuries connected to hurricanes happen not during the event but in the immediate aftermath, during the rehabilitation and restoration phase. Accidental injuries from power tools (especially chainsaws) are extremely common as well as inhalation of mold and other dangerous aerosols that can lead to asthma flare-ups and other respiratory conditions. Similarly, when generators are not correctly operated, exposure to gasoline vapors and carbon monoxide is very common. Another less obvious effect is the impact of poor access to nutritious food and safe drinking water (for example severe dehydration is a common cause of ER visits after hurricanes).
Hurricanes are also indirectly associated with the spread of certain infectious diseases. Some water-borne diseases can spread when sewage systems are compromised, and researchers have also observed the spread of airborne diseases in crowded shelters. Less clearcut is the impact of hurricanes on the diffusion of diseases carried by mosquitoes: while the number of mosquitoes increases after floods, high winds, and heavy rains seem to reduce the number of mosquitoes.
The main long-term impact of hurricanes on human health is the disruption of healthcare services; this is especially true for people suffering from pre-existing conditions. On one hand, hospitals and pharmacies in affected areas are less accessible and effective due to damaged buildings, impassable roads, power outages, lack of public transport, essential personnel being displaced or unable to go to work, etc. On the other hand, people who evacuated might not have the necessary knowledge to access healthcare in the towns where they are temporarily
living. In both cases, it could be difficult or impossible to refill prescriptions, perform treatments such as dialysis or chemotherapy, move forward with surgeries, and, in general, receive treatment for all sorts of ailments. This, in turn, can worsen pre-existing conditions or delay the discovery and treatment of new cases.
Hurricanes are also a great source of stress that affects the mental health of all people involved. Pre-existing mental health conditions can worsen, especially when medicine and therapy are not available due to disruptions in the healthcare system and new conditions such as PTSD can arise. Often these conditions can develop in combination with symptoms such as high blood pressure, breathing difficulties, skin rashes, and panic attacks. Sadly, high levels of mental distress are also associated with violent behaviors: during, and immediately after these extreme weather events, research shows that the number of reported cases of intimate partner violence as well as violence against children increases.
So, what can you do to protect yourselves and your loved ones during an extreme weather event?
Below you can find a list of official websites with detailed instructions and advice: